Trans Siberian Railway, Mongolia and getting PISSED OFF!
Day 1,877 since October 10th 2013: 166 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
When life gives you lemons…throw them at someone! ;)
I recently read the scientific community warns against trying to cheer people up with “helpful” advise as it will often (not always) make it worse. It is recommended being there for them and showing empathy. Well, thank you all for showing so much empathy lately. You ARE the best people of all time!!! Thank you so much!!
I posted a video on Once Upon A Saga's YouTube channel Wednesday night giving an emotional and frustrating status update on the current situation which could be a lot better. However I have been to 166 countries and there are also those that are worse off. I suppose this is as good a way to start a blog as any? Now you know where it is heading. Sort of like watching the Titanic movie and knowing that it will sink and lots of people will die. Go back to Wednesday morning and the future was still bright and clear. Go back before that and I was on an epic train ride between the world’s second coldest and the world’s coldest capital. That is no joke in the wintertime for someone who spent most of the year in the Middle East – and also someone who was caught in a sandstorm between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan just weeks ago. Thankfully Berghaus has been a friend for a while and I have been able to pull out my ‘Hydrophobic down 850’ which did the trick when we dropped in on Greenland back in 2014. Man the stories I could tell you. And the experience I have gained.
Let’s start with the train ride. I guess I could write half a book on looking out the frosty windows at a white winter landscape which perpetually rolled by. However I’ll give you the short version. I boarded an overnight train from Astana in Kazakhstan to Yekaterinburg which is Russia’s fourth most populous city. That covered a distance of 1,141 km (709 mi) and offered me some ten hours of waiting time between trains for my 03:44am departure. I had the top bunk and shared it with a few friendly passengers that didn’t really speak English.
Yekaterinburg looked really pleasing to me. In fact the train brought me through several impressive cities in Russia.
The next train was far more modern than the first one and far emptier. I was literally the only passenger in the entire carriage. The train stewardess told me I could pick any bed but I still went for the top. I got some sleeping done, I read a lot, a watched some series on my laptop, took pictures, looked out the window and mostly spent my time alone. There was a dining car where I had most of my meals. That was nine carriages away from my bed so a total of about 300 meters (984 ft) to walk. Basically my only exercise. The food was good but I found the portions to be small. One morning when I came into the dining car (which I mostly had for myself) I found a man sitting there drinking from his second beer bottle. Well done. I guess a lot of people actually find alcohol to be a pleasant companion along the ride. As I walked from carriage to carriage I got to snoop a bit into some of the other cabins and it looked really local. Mostly people had brought their own food. Every carriage had a water heater (Titan) so everyone had access to hot water. The cabins were modern and convenient, the toilets were modern and reasonably clean, there were showers and the inside temperature was somewhere around 23 degrees (73.4 F). Outside was a different story as the temperature would fluctuate between -2 and -19 (28.4 and -2.2 F) in the daytime hours! You felt that walking between carriages as you stepped into some micro Narnia and out again.
Photo courtesy of Paul. Jazz and Jenny in the back.
In the long run it was a great train ride which I did enjoy although I would definitely have enjoyed it more if I shared it with someone. I naturally thought back upon Art and the other friends I made on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco (USA). We are still in touch today! That was an amazing train ride which I doubt I will ever forget. This little stretch of the Trans-Siberian Railway was also something but I did miss Art. I got a taste of some companionship when Paul from the UK and Jazz + Jenny from Aussie-land reached out and asked if I wanted to join their card game. I had been eyeing them at a few meals and actually thought to reach out so was happy when they did. I’d love to go into detail about their personalities and some of the stories they shared!! But when I met them they were under the influence of a cozy amount of wine and pink gin. So what happens on the train stays on the train. I really like the three of them. Paul is from Norfolk and had been on trains since he left the UK. He needed seemed to be enjoying his solo train adventure. Jazz and Jenny are daughter and mother in that order. Jazz has been “in the world” for the past four years and Jenny had teamed up with her for some traveling before heading home for Christmas. They are from Brisbane but Jazz spends most her time in Canada these days and pursuits becoming an actor someday. I support that life choice as it takes courage to step out of line.
Having spent five days on trains and adding another 4,444 km (2,761 mi) to the Saga from the second train ride, we rolled into Mongolia and made it country number 166 in a single unbroken journey completely without flying! Choo choo!! I might just add that customs and immigration caused me no issues what so ever. I almost felt protected as a foreigner while I saw them make life harder for the locals. There is never much joy in waking up in the middle of the night to show your passport, answer question and open your bags. However it was clearly worse for some than others. Once we had cleared the border and the train was safe in Mongolia I saw why! Now don’t think I know it all. This is just what I saw and it could have been my imagination. However the train quickly became lively as staff and passengers began to move all sorts of goods around. It was as if some passengers were in on it on behalf of the staff. Pill glasses were collected from seemingly random handbags and handed back to someone with a cardboard box. It was a long train…lots of good places to hide stuff. Seemingly innocent stuff like medicine, disposable rubber gloves, food, clothes etc. Not drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or weapons.
Five days offline made my email account and social media look like a warzone! It took a while to get it all under control again and I had also received an email from the Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS) who welcomed me and wanted to know which day I would visit. So right from the get-go I was buried in administrative tasks. I also had to prepare for my Chinese visa application. Plan A was to go from Kazakhstan to Pakistan through China. I was now in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, working on plan B which was obtaining the visa for China there and heading to Pakistan through the Karakoram Highway. That epic highway has been a prime motivator for me lately and I have for a long time been able to picture the snow caped mountaintops as they point high into the sky! The magic scenery and the incredible elevation. It is the highest border crossing in the world, over 4800 meters (roughly 16,000 ft) in the Khunjerab Pass.
Ulaanbaatar is modern and around this time of the year: cold. The locals disagree with -20 beying cold though.
Mongolia is a whopper of a country ranking as the world’s 18th largest and most sparsely populated country with only about 3 million beating hearts across it. Horse people by the way! More than other nations it seems. I was casually seated at a table with four Mongolians when the subject came up. Three men and a woman. I carefully asked if everyone knew how to ride and the answer was that technically all men should know how to ride. So what I read from that is that most know but not all. Then I asked them one by one if they knew how to ride and the answers came one by one: yes, yes, yes and yes. The only two countries Mongolia borders are Russia and China! Those must be among the world’s top five most well-known countries and certainly most influential. So it is no wonder that Mongolia has some influence from both China and Russia. However Mongolia is so definitely also its own creature! The small population compared to the land size is one thing along with the many people who still live traditional lives far from the city surrounded by seemingly endless grass steppe. More soaring eagles, more wild horses and a spectacular history of a single man’s achievement in conquering the world’s largest empire only exceeded by the British Empire in the 19th century! In fact: in only 25 years Genghis Khan’s horsemen conquered a larger area than the Romans did in 400 years! So that is something and also the pride of the nation mush like the Vikings are of Scandinavia, the Phoenicians are of the Lebanese, the ancient Pharos are of Egypt, the Roman Empire is of Italy, the Inca’s are of Peru, the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayans of Belize and so on and so forth. Us who speak of it today live long after those who made it significant passed away.
This has been paid for entirely by Beatles fans. So cool!!
Mongolia is however also a modern country. I bet in every ger (yurt (portable round tent)) you’ll find a smartphone and probably a solar charger as well. But I wouldn’t know for sure as I didn’t leave the center of Ulaanbaatar at any point. I’m just kind of drawing parallels to African round huts and how rural areas bring lots of modern accessories into the western world’s primitive and slightly romantic notions of people living in the past. Well, in some cases those notions are spot on as in the case with the late American missionary who thought it was a good idea to preach religion on India’s North Sentinel Islands. Do you know what is truly astonishing in Ulaanbaatar? That would be the amount of Toyota Prius’ on the streets!! I have never seen anything like it!! Off the top of my head I would guess that every second car is a Prius. The Toyota Prius is a hybrid car so that is almost as modern as anything gets. Driving a hybrid saves a lot of money in fuel so that is a possible reason for the unbelievable amount of them in the city. It is apparently also the cheapest car available. I thought Amman in Jordan and Tbilisi in Georgia had a lot of hybrids! Ulaanbaatar definitely blows those capitals out of the water. Some Toyota representative must be fairly happy with accomplishments so far.
How many Toyota Prius do you see?
The Mongolian People’s Republic was formed in 1924 and back then the capital changed name to Ulaanbaatar, which means “red hero” in honor of Damdin Sükhbaatar, who is the country’s national hero. Genghis Khan is definitely a big deal but that was a long time ago. Sükhbaatar liberated Mongolia from Russian White Forces alongside with the Red Army of Russia and that was the beginning of the People’s Revolution. I don’t know much about this but I do know that Sükhbaatar means “red axe” which is pretty cool.
The Damdin Sükhbaatar statue at Sükhbaatar square.
Yup, I met up with the MRCS which I believe is the 162nd National Society within the Saga? The Red Cross Red Crescent isn’t in every country in the world but it is pretty close. They are not in Oman or the Vatican which are two countries we have been too. I was unable to reach them in Yemen and Equatorial Guinea due to “regional complications”. And Mongolia makes 166 countries so I believe the MRCS must be the 162nd I met with. I was given the honor of traveling as goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross back in 2013 when the Saga began. It has been quite the humanitarian experience for me. I come from the private sector where your value is often measured in how much you can earn or how much value you can generate. The humanitarian sector is a lot different. I do ponder why having a man visit this many National Societies is not being utilized on a large scale? Imagine how it would be if I was a Coca Cola ambassador drinking Coca Cola all over the world? I guess it would be all like: “Our man is enjoying an ice cold Coca Cola in country number 83!” or “Our man just teamed up with our office in Rwanda!” My achievements within the organization are not utilized on any level I am aware of? However my visits do appear to bring a lot of joy and wonder on an individual country level. The Red Cross is the world’s largest humanitarian organization and aims to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable people across our planet. And it is on an incredibly large scale!!! Trust me on that one! I’ve seen a lot of it. It was very easy to fall in love with the MRCS. I met up with Zunjee Bayankhuu whi is a MRCS Youth Programme Officer. We met in front of the Fine Arts Museum and caught a cab to the MRCS HQ. There I met Enkhtaivan who is the Director of Administration and Coordination Department. I was guided around their museum and they presented me with some video clips of their activities and accomplishments. Then some to die for volunteers acted out the seven fundamental values for me (Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary, Unity and Universality). That was really cute, creative and fun! Then they performed a dance for me which originates from a massive flash mob event they held. They really looked like if they had a lot of fun and that is in large what the RC Youth is about: community and networking.
The RC museum at MRCS in Ulaanbaatar.
I forgot to mention that when I walked through the door of the MRCS four volunteers chanted: “Welcome to MRCS Mr. Pedersen”. The MRCS has a long history of accomplishments behind them and are highly active in the humanitarian field. I could list it all but I would much rather if you just checked out their website which is really great: https://www.redcross.mn/ I had a brief opportunity to shake hands with Mrs Nordov Bolormaa who is their Secretary General. She was busy with a natural disaster exercise which was ongoing. Mongolia is prone to earthquakes although it has been a while since they had a devastating one. The country has extremely hot summers and extremely cold winters. Especially the winters appear to be getting worse and are costing the lives of hundreds of thousands livestock! Flooding is another disaster Mongolia is prone too. Lots of good people at MRCS!
It is an impressive RC pin collection the Youth department has. Mine isn't that far off it.
Well, Wednesday came and that was my first opportunity to apply for the Chinese visa. They are not open every day for visa applications. There are a lot of stories about how harsh the Chinese embassies are and how often they change their rules. I don’t know if the rumors are true. I do know that they accept 100 applications per day and that only ten of them are offered to foreigners. So it is wise to come early. In the summertime overlanders on bicycles, motorcycles, vehicles or foot are said to line up the night before the embassy opens. But I reached Ulaanbaatar in the winter and all of those people were nowhere to be found. Jazz (from the train) was there with her mother. And a couple of teachers from USA and Australia were there when I arrived a few minutes before the embassy opened. It was FREEZING in Ulaanbaatar so I felt no need to come earlier and a traveler from Poland had recently obtained his visa for China and said there were no applicants anyway.
Parts of Ulaanbaatar feel more Chinese than others.
It took another 40 minutes before the doors opened and that was enough for my toes to start complaining about the cold. Jazz and Jenny had been there for two hours already! We entered, got in line and when it was my turn I handed the lady my application along with one of my two passports. Some countries offer that their citizens can have two passports in special cases. In such cases one passport is the regular ten year passport and the supplementary passport is valid for two years. Apart from the validity and the separate passport numbers there is no difference between the two passports I have. It is handy to have two passport in several cases. One important factor is that you automatically have twice the pages. You may remember that I have a slightly torn page in one passport which made the Russians reject it. So I applied using the other just to be on the safe side. The lady couldn’t find my Mongolian visa which was in the “torn passport”. So I had to reveal that I had two which is not always a popular thing to do as it sometimes creates suspicion. At this point the lady said that they had to put my visa in the passport with the Mongolian visa in it (‘torn one”). I was okay with that as it would fill up that passport which only has one empty page left. However she wasn’t happy about the tear. Also in the application I had to list which countries I had been to within the last 12 month which involves a lot of conflicted countries. I would rather avoid that but they could obviously see the stamps and visas in my passport so the smart move was to list the countries from the passport I was applying with. But now she had access to see the countries from both passports. Combined they included South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. So I guess it was fair for the embassy to raise some suspicion. I would.
It turns out horse meat tastes really good!
I could go with the entire “I am traveling to every country without flying” story. However to my knowledge China is somewhat careful with people who hold social media and a blog. So I avoided that. The lady told me she had to check what was possible with the torn page and requested that I would come back at 4pm. I was not given the option to pay. Everyone else was sent to the bank. I returned at 4pm as everyone else came to pick up their visas. A fellow from India was ahead of me and was told that they needed to do some extra research in Beijing and that it would take at least a month. He could choose between holding on to his passport and not apply or leave his passport with the embassy at which point they needed AT LEAST a month before he would hear from them. His friend, also from India, got his visa. Then it was my turn. The lady walked behind a counter, found my passports and returned to me: “you are in the same situation. You can leave your passports here and wait for AT LEAST a month or forfeit your application and keep your passport. What do you want to do?”
You've got to wonder what this show is about?
That was basically the worst outcome I could imagine! If I had been rejected then I could try with a new application. Or if she needed something extra I could try to get it for her. But wait for a month or leave? What would you do? I asked if there was anything I could do and she replied no. I asked if I could set up a meeting with the consular and she was not helpful. Then I took my passports back and left the embassy defeated. Earlier when she discovered the tear on my last page I told her that the Russian embassy had issues with it but neither the Mongolian nor Pakistan embassy saw it to be a problem. She replied to that with a cold voice: “this is the Chinese Embassy”. That it was.
So now what? In a landlocked country which only borders China and Russia. That leaves Russia. It is pretty simple math. Could I have done anything about the Chinese Embassy? Possibly. But getting the connections in place, having meetings, weekends, evaluation and more would most likely cost me a lot of days. My Pakistani visa would expire on December 19th and the only game plan that looked somewhat accomplishable was to arrange for all the documents I needed to apply for another Russian transit visa. Head to the Georgian border, backtrack through Georgia, Armenia and Iran until I reach Pakistan. Can that be accomplished before December 19th? We are talking about more than 12,000 km (7,456 mi) overland though four countries of which I need visas for two of. Money? Logistics? Bureaucrazy? Stamina? Motivation? The airport and a ticket home looked mighty tempting!!!
I was steaming!!! However the actions you take in the face of situations like these do define you in life. And who the heck ever achieved anything by giving up and not trying harder? Not Ibn Battuta, not Marco Polo, not Vasco Da Gama, not Roald Amundsen, not Edmund Hillary, not tensing Norgay, not Elon Musk, not Bill Gates, not Neil Armstrong, not Ernest Schackleton and certainly not Genghis Khan! So I began collecting everything I needed for plan C: Russian insurance, proof that I do not need visa for Georgia, paid train tickets for entire journey, visa application…then I shouted a bit and walked about in some furious circles for a bit. Afterwards I drank a lot of water and got back on track. I began the Iran online application for collection in Tbilisi Georgia. I liked the guy who worked there when I last got it. You might remember him? He approached me in the office by saying: “Hello. It’s me…” He was efficient and I got the visa fast after talking to him. I know the busses in the region. I know the cities. I know people along the route. It can potentially be done fast if I just blast though the countries. That day ended late…
Click HERE or on the image to view the video. It has been viewed 3,400 times already in less than 48 hours. Quite surprising to me.
The next morning, yesterday, I was ready at the Russian embassy when they opened. They were super kind and abnormally helpful. However they also had to inform me that if I wanted to cross the border between Russia and Georgia then they needed ten days to access my transit visa. Some “stuff” is going on in the region. The clerk who assisted me offered to share a hotspot from her private phone so that I could search for alternative options. What to do now? Tickets in my hand for departure the following day. Money spent. Irani visa applied for based on Georgia. Could I go through Kazakhstan and across the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan and onward to Georgia? Well, I would need a visa for Azerbaijan which is not hard to come by. When does the ferry leave? What about my ticket to Moscow? No…stick to what you know when you don’t have time to mess around. How about going across the “Stans”? Nope! The snow was already closing up various roads as I left the region and I am not keen on heading back through Afghanistan and I am furthermore unlikely to get another Turkmenistan visa in a hurry. That goes for Afghanistan too but I’m more concerned with my safety. How about going east across to the Pacific and make it to Japan? Well, I would lose my $200 USD ticket to Moscow and potentially stuff up a logistical plan I have been working on realizing for the past five years. No, the solution had to be to continue from Moscow to Odessa in Ukraine. Plan D was born.
In front of the Russian embassy. First phase of plan D accomplished.
Just to give you some idea here. I am currently 7 time zones east of home (Denmark). Going to Odessa to reach Pakistan will bring me back to only 1 time zone east of home and then Pakistan (4 hours east of home). People sometimes ask how I deal with jetlag and it has never been a problem within this project because of the speed I move in. However this might have me a little jetlagged. I proposed plan D for the embassy and had it approved. I just needed to return to my hostel, fill out a new online application, print it, secure a ticket from Moscow to Odessa, print it, print proof that I do not need a visa for Ukraine and return to the embassy. I had my Russian transit visa within three hours of first approaching them.
I will be back on the Trans Siberian Railway starting today (Friday) and will reach Moscow on Tuesday December 4th in the morning. My next train leaves in the evening so it gives me enough time to approach the Danish Embassy in Moscow and apply for two new passports. Passports 8 + 9 in this project. Then I will reach Odessa on the 6th (Thursday) only two hours late for the ferry to Georgia. Could I make it around the Black Sea by bus through five countries in time for the Iran embassy on Friday 7th? Not likely. Next ferry to Georgia? It departs two days later reaching Georgia on Sunday December 9th. I can visit the embassy the following day and hopefully be on my way through Armenia to Iran. The train across Iran takes about 24 hours. What can go wrong…
I’ll finish with a short story from the day I applied for the Chinese visa. While walking in Ulaanbaatar I observed a mother holding her young daughters hand while crossing the road. The little girl turn her head and saw me. She then smiled and waved franticly. I was in no mood to smile but she changed that. I smiled back and waved to her. Then she turned her head back and disappeared across the road with her mother. She could have been an angel if there ever was such a thing. There are small gifts in life you only get from children and animals. I had a tear in my eye…
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - feeling old
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga